Visions

A Promising Look at Genesis

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When studying Biblical literature, a reader can’t help but notice recurring themes that are first brought forth in the book of Genesis- the themes of Promise and Fulfillment. These themes provide the overarching structure and narrative of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

The first promise is found in the dramatic beginning to the Abraham and Sarah story in Genesis 12: 1-2. God calls the two of them to leave their home and family and embark on a journey to a land they do not yet know: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation (Genesis 12.1-2).

God determined and guided the future of these two people as well as their ancestors, and he pledged that future through promises (Genesis 12:1-3, 7). The consistent way in which the divine promises were transferred from one generation to the next seems to show that they are part of one large, divine plan. The promises assured 1) longevity through their offspring who would become a nation, and 2) assured possession of the land of Canaan. In their Priestly form, the promises entailed fruitfulness and multiplication.

The partial fulfillment of the promise of descendants is recorded in the genealogy in Genesis 46:8-27. When the promise was first put-forth, Abraham had no sons and therefore no potential lineage. Now that sons have been named, the question now becomes ‘Who will be the bearer of the promise?’

Chapter 22 reveals the answer to this question. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…” and then proceeds to test Abraham’s fear and respect for God by asking him to offer his son as a burnt offering. When he agrees, God reveals that it was only a test and that Abraham has passed. This satisfies Abraham’s part of the deal, therefore encouraging God to keep his promise of multiplication without harming Isaac.

The promise of land is also delayed in fulfillment. The ancestors to whom Canaan is promised spend more time outside the Promised Land than in it:
Abraham and Sarah spend their time in Egypt (Genesis 12) and Gerar (Genesis 20). The son, Isaac, and his wife Rebekah are also read about in Gerar (Genesis 26). Following this pattern, Jacob is in Haran (Genesis 29-31); Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 39-50); and Jacob, Joseph's brothers, and their families also in Egypt (Genesis 46-50).

The next “celebrity” involved in the effort to fulfill the promise to Abraham is Moses (of the house of Levi). He is first mentioned as an infant in Exodus 2, and is first given a name in 2.11. His task is presented later, in Exodus 3: And the Lord said, "I have surely seen the oppression of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land ... flowing with milk and honey ... Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt (Exodus 3.7-10)."

In Exodus 6, God clarifies this task in its relevance to his promise, saying: "And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 6.8)."

Many of the individual stories in these first five books of the Old Testament dramatize and intensify the theme of promise and fulfillment by adding a third element - a threat to the promise- an obstacle to its fulfillment. It is like a sacred melodrama where the ancestors find themselves in one predicament after another. Will God be able to fulfill the promise despite apparently hopeless conditions?

One major threat to the success of “God’s chosen people” and therefore, the promises themselves, are authority figures. Even the plethora of plagues God cast down upon the people in Egypt (Exodus 8) did not move the Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free to pursue their promised land! The horrible plagues continued through Exodus 11, when it came to pass that ‘the plague of death shall strike the firstborn of man and beast from Pharaoh's family down to the firstborn of the servants (11.4). Even this did not convince the Pharaoh, making him one of the strongest opposition to the will of the “Promise” encountered thus far.

To protect the Hebrew people from the plague of death, God gave specific directions to Moses and Aaron, as recorded in Exodus 12. This, in a way, supports his promise to provide them with longevity. God also aids in their survival by parting the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14.21) and allowing them safe passage while the Pharaoh and his army are engulfed.

As the Israelites journey into the desert still seeking their “Promised Land,” they face many hardships, which God responds to with solutions. He does this, once again, to preserve the longevity of His people. When they cannot find food, He presents them with a food source. When there is no water, He makes it possible for them to have water from stone (Exodus 16.13-17.6).

The rest of the Pentateuch is the story of the fulfillment of this promise. It concludes, at the end of Deuteronomy, with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah at the Jordan River following the exodus from Egypt and forty years living in the wilderness. Here they are ready to cross over to Canaan, the Promised Land.

Many of the fulfillments to promises from God aren’t taken care of until much later. The initial promise in Genesis 12:1-3 establishes God’s plan to bless the nations through Abraham and his descendents, but in the progress of revelation we find in 2 Samuel 7:12-16 and later in Acts 13:22-23 that the fulfillment of the initial promise involves the fulfillment of another promise to David regarding a future king and kingdom. It all becomes very complicated when the promises begin piling up on one another!

Some might argue that the promises are not approached in full until the New Testament, when Jesus fulfills them by his death, resurrection, and exaltation; but what is really important in context of these promises is not the final result, but God’s constant attempts to keep fulfilling the large promises with smaller ones as time goes on.

Whenever His people are struggling to maintain their bloodline for fear of death, God steps in to protect them. He also aids them in small instances, encouraging their continued steps towards the land and future he promised them. At any rate, it is apparent that the theme of Promise is a significant one in the Pentateuch, as well as the rest of the Biblical literature, and is responsible for the connectedness and forward flow of the stories therein.

Katherine Kennon (2005)